If it's true that you count what you care about, Kentucky's education establishment has never cared all that much about dropouts.
High school graduation rates have been exaggerated while dropout rates have been underestimated, in part because high school students who didn't re-enroll at the beginning of a school year never showed up on anyone's books as having left school without a diploma.
This problem and others were highlighted in a performance audit requested by Kentucky legislators. Even though the state had spent $7 million on a student information system, it couldn't accurately count dropouts.
That audit was almost five years ago, and Kentucky still is not ready to adopt a new uniform national system for more accurately measuring high school graduation rates.
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Instead, the state had to opt for a two-year interim reporting system that pegged the high school graduation rate at 77 percent.
That's below the 82 percent interim goal set by the Kentucky Board of Education and below the number produced by the old system. (Susan Weston, who deciphers education statistics for the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, predicts that the actual rate will probably shake out somewhere between the two.)
From the admittedly under-reported data we've had in the past, we know that Kentucky was losing at least 1 in 5 students from the time they entered high school until the time they should have graduated. The new data suggest the attrition rate may be even higher.
For the first time, Kentucky is able to report graduation rates for groups within the overall population. Males, African-Americans and Hispanics are graduating at a rate below the state average.
Dropouts impose a huge burden on taxpayers and society, have scant chance of supporting themselves and help perpetuate the cycle of low education, poverty and prison.
Dropout prevention begins long before a child reaches high school. But the legislature has done little in recent years to expand early childhood education programs that prepare youngsters to learn and succeed in school.
Attempts to more sharply focus schools on preventing dropouts by raising the mandatory attendance age to 18 have been repeatedly blocked by the Republicans who control the state Senate.
It's hard to solve a problem without recognizing its true dimensions. So hats off to the feds for finally requiring states to report more accurate graduation rates. Once all the states are using the same system, valid comparisons will be possible for the first time.
But Kentucky really can't afford to wait. We know what it takes to teach all kids; we just have to summon the will and the resources to do it.